I recently produced a track for Azure, which was a cover of 'Elusive' written by Scott Matthews, as performed by Lianne La Havas.
I originally accompanied Azure on this song back in Feb 2015 at one of her shows. It was actually a bit tricky coming up with an acoustic guitar arrangement, due to the way Lianne plays. She almost suggests chords with the guitar, and uses her voice to fill the space. She also uses evil jazz chords, which have been know to cause me nightmares.
What I did, was break down the jazzy E chord in the verse into two variants, played sparsely. Generally, I play the bottom E first with my thumb, then pluck the remaining strings on the second beat. Then I'll play the top E string just before switching variants. Like Lianne, Azure's voice is great at filling in the space. For reference, here's the tab of the chords I used. They probably have official names, but I build them up by ear, and will just call them 'Evil jazz 1' and 'Evil jazz 2'
Evil jazz 1
E|--0 B|--4 G|--4 D|--2 A|--x E|--0
Evil jazz 2
E|--0 B|--2 G|--4 D|--2 A|--x E|--0
I used my Martin D28 for the acoustic parts, with a matched pair of AKG P170 mics to record a stereo image, with an X/Y placement. One mic was pointing at the top 3 strings, and the other at the bottom, aimed at roughly the 12th fret. I have a great LR Baggs M80 pickup which I often use for recording, but using the mics gives more of a pure sound, which is significantly different. This gives me two recordings of the same take with slightly different sound. These can then be panned hard left and right, which gives a bigger guitar sound. You can cheaply get a stereo mic holder as seen below.
The LR Baggs pickup is still amazing though. It's fantastic live, and I use it to record all live performances in my studio. I didn't do too much with the guitar EQ, as it recorded quite brightly. Mainly I just used a high pass filter, which removes bass rumble, and cut some other bassy frequencies, which in turn gives a natural boost to some of the higher frequencies.
When I was doing the initial mastering, I boosted the volume of the entire track and noticed with a shock (and a lot of swearing) that there was hiss on the guitar during the silences. This stemmed from recording the guitars reasonably hot (higher mic input volume), but was remedied using a noise gate.
At the very beginning of the song, you can hear only acoustic, and a 'Bright Mk11 Blackface' electric piano plugin, panned slightly to the right. I really like it's tremolo effect. I then bring in some bass. There's not much chordal variation in the verses, so I slightly emulated what is in the Lianne version, by playing with the E note at the top and bottom of the octave.
On the chorus, I replicated what I did in the original performance of Elusive. I had to go back and study a recording I have of the live show (which was recorded way too hot because I'm an idiot, and clips badly). Fortunately I could make out the guitar. I used my Gibson ES for this part, and ran it through a crunch distortion in Logic called 'Big Brute Blues'. I just added a bit more reverb, and panned it to the left. I was actually really pleased with this guitar part (if I may say so!). I really dislike using bar chords, so either played open variations of the chords (such as Cm, where I also play the top E string open), or 3 or 4 note variations of the others (F#m, G#m), then connected them with some runs, which I think gives the lick a walking feel, rather than a rigidity that you can get from playing a solid chord sequence.
I also have an analogue synth pad on the chorus which is barely audible. This helps to fill out the overall sound.
Working with Azure's voice is great. There's a few standout things she does. I love her vocal flips, which you can hear at around 2:12. She also does a 'last minute' vibrato quite regularly, where's she'll hold the note for a while, then let the vibrato roll out just when you think the note is finishing. She should really patent this. There's a good example of it at around 2:39.
You'll hear me using the term 'hot' a lot, when recording with a mic. There's a school of thought based on analogue recordings that says you should record as hot as you can without clipping, to minimize noise. Too much pre-amp gain can introduce noise though, but too little can introduce noise as the level needs to be increased a lot after recording. The other school of thought is that with 24 bit recordings, you can record at much lower levels. I kept Azure slightly hot here, as she isn't doing any belting, and I wanted to capture the breathiness of her voice, which you don't always get as clearly with lower levels.
There's also a compressor on an effects bus processing half the signal, which lets me tame the louder notes and increase the overall volume. An issue I ran into was that some of the vowels that Azure sang cut through the mix more than others, and I didn't want to heavily compress the signal. What I did was run an EQ analyzer on her voice, pinpointing the precise frequencies that were jumping out. There's a particular bit where Azure sings 'fake' which caused a spike. I found this frequency and surgically cut it. You can see a couple more cuts in the image below. I also boosted some top end which I think helped to introduce more airiness to Azure's voice. I also used some volume automation to tame certain vocals more. This lets me dynamically change the volume in specific sections, without having to cut up the track to do so (know as 'multing')
When recording vocals, I like a singer to do at least 4 takes. This is called comping, and lets you pick and choose the best bits from each take, to construct a single final one. I know there's some magic in capturing a single take, but that's more fun with live recordings. It's WAY easier having the option of comping in the studio. It can be used to fix any problem vocals, but it can also be used to add more interesting vocals. I often find that the more interesting vocals come out in the later takes, even if the take isn't wholly consistent. Interestingly with Azure, I used most of her first take, but comped in little bits from the others.
When mixing, I'll always use some reference tracks, which can be used to get a recording sounding more 'commercial'. They can help with things like balancing out individual instruments in the mix, and also general EQ. With Azure, I referenced the original Lianne track which helped with the bass, and also India Arie's 'Ready for Love', which has a similar sparse feel, and a breathy vocal.
For the outro of the song, I used a similar acoustic lick to my original live version. You can hear fret noise when my fingers are moving, which I particularly like. This could be reduced by using a gate, recording less hot, or recording further away from the mic. I like a guitar to sound natural, and I think these small human touches can add warmness to a track.
Overall, I was pleased with the outcome of this. Azure has a really interesting dynamic voice, and as mentioned, I love the flips, slow rolling vibrato, richness and breathiness that I think captured well, and I look forward to doing more recordings with her.